Hazzan Barbara Barnett is singing a new song. The former Chicago-based cantor is preparing for a new year as a Hebrew and Jewish studies teacher at Community Day School.
Although instructing kindergarteners and early childhood students is a departure from leading thousands of worshippers in the Shema, Barnett said she’s eager to share her love of tefillah (prayer) and create new connections in Pittsburgh.
“I want to make liturgy mean something,” the Swissvale resident said. “The heart and soul of being Jewish, and the thing that ties us all together — no matter what movement we are in — is the liturgy and the Torah.”
Barnett moved to Pittsburgh last summer — her daughter and family live in Squirrel Hill — then spent the year teaching at CDS and J-JEP.
She built her skills in the Windy City suburbs. Before serving as hazzan/tefillah educator at North Suburban Synagogue Beth El, Barnett was cantor at Congregation Beth Am and ritual director at Congregation Beth Shalom in Northbrook, Illinois.
In each setting, Barnett said she focused on transforming prayer from perfunctory to prudent.
One mechanism, she said, was leading multigenerational services and helping individuals scrutinize liturgical texts.
Another was creating “nonthreatening and nonjudgmental” prayer spaces — places where generations of families could come, ask questions and “become more knowledgeable,” she said.
Praying doesn’t have to be a foreign practice in a staid environment, she said: “Kids or adults, on whatever level it is, can connect to their Judaism in a less obvious but meaningful way.”
Barnett pointed to Kabbalat Shabbat at CDS as an example of how she’s carried her Midwestern efforts east.
“Every Friday last year, we would get the entire preschool in a room and do a 30-minute service where everybody was completely singing,” she said.
With school starting soon, Barnett is excited to share that love of prayer again and expand it throughout the community.
Although working with children is a delight, Barnett said she seeks ways to engage older adults.
“It’s kind of hard to move into a new community,” she said. “I have always served these enormous synagogues, with 1,200 families, with multiple clergy, and here things are much smaller.”
Barnett said she wants to make the most of Pittsburgh. She joined a havurah (friend group) at Congregation Beth Shalom and continues working on her other passion: writing.
She is the author of “The Apothecary’s Curse,” which was a Bram Stoker Award nominee, and “Alchemy of Glass” — both novels were from Pyr Books and Simon and Schuster — and several other works.
Recently, she has “crossed over into shorter fiction,” she said.
Whether by pen or prayer, Barnett hopes to make new friends, impact her community and disseminate the teaching of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: “radical amazement.”
“Children get it. They are not cynical and they are not jaded — they are open to it. And that’s why I love teaching kindergarten students and kids who are younger,” she said.
Her hope, Barnett continued, is to share that passion with the wider community.
“I grew up in a very secular Reform home. I didn’t know an alef from a bet until I was in my 20s, and following along in services was as impossible as learning Greek. When I made a decision to be a cantor it wasn’t only for the purpose of engaging kids, but to engage and speak to everyone,” she said.
Part of the beauty of Pittsburgh is that the bevy of hills aren’t necessarily obstacles to making liturgy more accessible, she said: “It’s a lovely community.”
Helping people appreciate worship isn’t only about making the ride easier, she said.
It should be “enjoyable and joyful.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.